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The Broncos seem right in that sweet spot in between.
In the nearly three hours I spent in the locker room this week -- 45 minutes on Monday and Wednesday, 40 minutes Thursday and about 35 minutes Friday -- I sensed a business-as-usual approach.
Players didn't seem nervous. There was plenty of banter. In two instances for which I was present, a Bronco jumped in playfully on a teammate's interview, all in good fun.
"We're always going to be loose in the locker room," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. "But when we get into the meeting rooms, and we get out there on that field, everybody's been locked in (and) laser-focused and that's what you have to have to win a championship."
Added defensive tackle Terrance Knighton: "We're taking it a practice at a time. Not trying to be too energized. We're focusing on our opponent and making sure we have the mental aspect down because a playoff atmosphere, it's a lot of emotion out there. You can go out there and make mistakes because you're emotional. So right now, we're just taking it a day at a time, focusing on the opponent, and making sure Sunday we can play fast and not have to think."
If anything, the only sign of anything different in the locker room was in the media crowd, thanks to the arrival of a dozen or so Indianapolis reporters and some national media, along with a change in the tenor of questions.
"I think it's different for you guys," running back C.J. Anderson told a handful of reporters this week. "You guys ask, 'Is this your first playoff game?' and this and that. I'm having fun. I mean, this is the same game I've been playing since I was 8."
Anderson's postseason work was limited to brief cameos last year, so Sunday's game will represent his first start. As is the case with his teammates, he knows it's crucial to treat it like any other game.
"I just feel like when I'm having fun and I'm relaxing, joking and cheering my teammates on, I'm at my best," he said. "I know the stakes are higher. But if I can continue to stack weeks and continue to play the way I know I can play, everything will be great."
In a season with "Super Bowl or bust" expectations, as has been said in recent weeks, it can be easy for tensions to rise, and nerves to tighten. It often happens without anyone realizing it until it's too late. The Broncos seem to be avoiding that this week. Whether it helps them Sunday is unknown, but staying on an even keel can't hurt them.
I know this is getting the cart before the horse. Is it (if we get a "W" this weekend) better for us to play in Foxboro or play the Ravens at home? The Ravens seem to be just as concerning as the Patriots.
-- Denny Flaherty
You're right, it is putting the cart before the horse -- or, in this weekend's case, the Colts.
Besides, as I reminded a friend via text message seconds after the Steelers beat the Colts on Jan. 15, 2006, thus knocking out the No. 1 seed and ensuring an AFC Championship Game in Denver, "Be careful what you wish for -- you might get it."
I've seen enough unexpected results over the years to ensure that I will not tell Broncos fans it's "better" to get one possible opponent than another. Let's just say that if the Broncos win Sunday, both potential matchups are difficult and fraught with danger, and leave it at that.
Is that a lame answer? Probably. But I've learned it's the accurate one over 16 seasons writing about the NFL.
With coaches Adam Gase and Jack Del Rio interviewing for head coaching jobs and the Broncos needing a new head coach within a season or two, why doesn't John Elway pull a Calgary Stampeders and name a head coach-in-waiting? -- Gary Feland **
First, you're operating from a false assumption -- the Broncos "needing a new head coach within a season or two." Granted, this is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, but the head coach they have has the highest winning percentage in franchise history and four consecutive division titles. Too much can change -- in either direction.
To address your other point, there are two reasons why a coach-in-waiting works in other situations, but not in the NFL.
- In the case of college football and basketball, schools have been known to name a "coach in waiting" to provide a message of continuity and stability to potential recruits. That is not a concern in the NFL. And even when used in college, the concept can go astray, as was the case when Texas named Will Muschamp a "coach-in-waiting" in 2008. By 2011, Mack Brown was still the Longhorns' coach, and Muschamp was on the sideline at Florida.
- In the case of the Stampeders, the current coach -- former Broncos quarterback John Hufnagel -- is also the general manager. When he steps away from the sideline, he will still have a prominent role in the organization -- and still be the boss of the current coach-in-waiting. So the organizational tree will not change, for all practical purposes. That isn't possible with the Broncos, with a clearly established general manager who will remain as such.
Will Paul Cornick be back for next week's game? Definitely missing him in the game at certain times.-- Ryan Moss**
Expect him to play. He's listed as probable and has enjoyed full participation in every practice this week.
I'd like to know what it's like to look up to everyone all the time, it must be tough and also when did you start wearing high heels? Only joking but seriously, you do seem to be a stalwart for the Broncos so I applaud you for that.
You get used to it. Besides, a lack of stature comes in handy on plane flights. And they're not high heels; they're lifts.
In the parlance of Mickey from Seinfeld, I'm "heightening."
Are the weekly practice sessions closed to the public through the playoffs? -- Perry Morton
No NFL team opens practice to the public during the regular season or playoffs. All practice sessions are closed until the start of training camp, and then, after next summer's camp, they will be closed again until the following year's camp.
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